Backflash (by Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake)

“Backflash” is the eighteenth novel in the Parker world. It is wedged between “Comeback” and “Flashfire” and, as Lawrence Block points out in the introduction, this is Westlake (aka Stark) having fun with his titles and connecting them. It is part of the second set of Parker novels, published from 1997 to 2008 after a 23-year hiatus from the series. These are longer novels than most of the original sixteen. In some ways, they feel smoother, more professionally finished.

This one involves what looks for most of the book more like a con game from The Sting than a simple show your guns and rob them kind of caper. The subject of the caper here is a gambling boat running a route up and down the Hudson River in upstate New York. “It looked like any small cruise ship, white and sparkly, a big oval wedding cake, except in the wrong setting. It should be in the Caribbean, with Tommy Carpenter, not steaming up the Hudson River beside gray stone cliffs, north out of New York City.”

This is a trial run for the boat and estimates of how much dough is traveling on the boat range in the neighborhood of several hundred thousand. A retired, but still well-connected state bureaucrat has got the idea for the caper and engages Parker to do it. Parker likes the money angle, but for the life of him, can’t figure out why this straight- laced career bureaucrat is even involved in such a thing. Parker himself organizes the crew in this one and it includes a number of characters from other Parker novels, including a couple from the art caper in Plunder Squad such as Noelle, whose main job there was to take off her clothes and distract the sheriff’s deputies and Mike Carlow who explains that people get used to everything, but being dead. The wonder of this book is how Parker’s crew cons their way onto the boat and then off it with the loot and I won’t spoil it by telling about it.

The great characters in this book don’t stop with Parker’s crew, but include the state bureaucrat that engages Parker on this enterprise and others that try to get in his way. Some of the descriptions are hysterically funny like the motel clerk with the “neat egg-shaped head with straight brown hair down both sides of it, like curtains at a window, and nothing much in the window” and the bartender who looked “like a retired cop who’d gone to seed the day his papers had come through.” Then there’s Susan Cahill, who is in charge of guest relations on the gambling boat, “she in low-heeled pumps, dark blue skirt and jacket” and “her smile looked metallic, something stamped out of sheet tin. The hand she extended, with its long, coral-colored nails, seemed made of plastic, not flesh.”

The book is simply another great addition to the Parker universe. It is written in Westlake’s tight prose and filled with action and planning and double-crosses.


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